Completed in 1876, soon after German unification, the neoclassical building announces the conceits of nineteenth-century nationalism. It is grand. It is heroic. It is self-assured. You approach it, then walk up an imposing set of stairs, first to the left, then the right, ascending behind a giant, equestrian statue of the Prussian King, Frederick William IV. Then with a push of a giant iron and glass door, you enter into a spacious white-marbled entrance hall.
Suddenly, you find yourself in the “Berlin National Gallery,” or as it is now called, the Old National Gallery.
Yet its paintings are neither very old nor very national—though it is a gallery; it mainly houses art of the nineteenth century, most of it German, some of it French. When you enter the rooms the displays of nationalist grandeur fall quiet, and the art speaks. The paintings speak in a different voice—tragic, realist, and critical. Let us look at a few of them.
One of the gallery’s most famous paintings is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk at the Sea (circa 1810). The monk is small, the sea dark and menacing, and only by looking up, to God as it were, is there relief, light. One can hope, but the tragic, represented by the restless sea, engulfs the religious figure. All he can do is pray.
It is often forgotten that Caspar David Friedrich became an obscure painter later in his life. In the 1830s, the French sculptor David D’Angers still saw Friedrich as the painter who “discovered the tragedy of landscape.” But few Germans shared his opinion, and it was not until the early twentieth century that Friedrich was rediscovered. He was rediscovered, moreover, in this very building. In 1906, the Francophile director of the museum, Hugo von Tschudi, exhibited
Friedrich, as well as many other German Romantic painters, in “The Century Exhibit of German Art.” Yet far from interpreting Friedrich as a German nationalist painter, Tschudi saw him as a precursor to French impressionism.
Many of the painters whose paintings hang in these rooms led something of a double life, supporting the Prussian-German court on one canvass, criticizing contemporary society on another. The most famous of them is Adolph Menzel. Here, in the “Old National Gallery,” one can see Menzel’s early attempt at painting “The Meeting of Frederick II and Joseph II in Neisse in 1769,” in which the meticulous painter makes the “mistake” of placing the two regents on equal footing (It is only in the final, approved, and alas canonized version that Frederick is elevated over the Austrian regent, who looks up at him adoringly).
Remarkable but unheralded in its time is “Rear Courtyard and House” (1844). In this painting, Menzel studies the cheerless “makeshiftness” of the modern city. Clothes flutter, fences cut the middle ground from the foreground, jarring unaligned angles hem people in. Menzel had an eye for the city’s lack of form, for its confined spaces, and for the loneliness it brought forth, especially at nightfall.
And, of course, there is “Iron Rolling Mill”--one of the truly great paintings of the nineteenth century. It too is here in the museum. Rendered between 1872 and 1875, it was an un-commissioned work based on hundreds of sketches and drawings Menzel made during a journey to his native Upper Silesia. Menzel brought them together in a large canvass focused on angled, strained workers contorting their torsos to wrest hot iron from the roller. The canvass is teeming with laborers. The men in the foreground are multiplied along the central transverse while others wait with hanging bars and chains to clutch the rolled iron. Still, others are finished with their work and are washing and eating. Yet the rolling mill obeys neither the rhythms of nature nor of men. In the new era of round-the-clock shift work, the mill never stops and instead portends a bleak future for male work. At the bottom right of the canvass, a lone woman brings the workers sustenance in a fletched basket. She looks out as if to ask us to observe as intently as Menzel. Critics thought she disturbed the view.
Women’s work was not often the subject of the painting in the nineteenth century when men were thought of as occupying the public sphere and women the domestic sphere. But when we walk into yet another room, we see Max Liebermann’s, “Flax Barn at Laren” (1887). The young girls are foregrounded, their whole being, and their whole potential being, is bent and focused on the singular twisting of flax. The ceilings are low and the atmosphere is claustrophobic. We ask ourselves how old these girls (and a few of the boys spinning at the windows) could be, and feel the beams pressing down, the walls closing in.
The exterior of the national gallery, its skin as it were, tries to speak the language of nationalism, emphasizing heroic grandeur. But the interior, the heart, tells of different truths about the nation.
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Helmut Walser Smith is Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author of many books on German History. His Germany. A Nation in its Time: Before, During and After Nationalism, 1500-2000 appeared in March 2020, with W.W. Norton/Liveright imprint.